Virtual Gourmet

  March 19,   2017                                                                                            NEWSLETTER


The Plaza Hotel Oak Room Bar, Illustration for Esquire Magazine (c. 1936)
  by Leslie Saalberg


   Part One
By John Mariani


By John Mariani

Part One
By John A. Curtas


   Part One

By John Mariani


    When I first visited Budapest seventeen years ago, a decade after the Soviets rolled out of Hungary, the city was still in the grip of a post-war drabness that masked its historic grandeur.  The one good hotel’s only questionable pretense to civility was that it banned hookers from the rooms.  Most restaurants served the same menu of heavy Hungarian food without access to good ingredients. Budapest simply wasn’t ready for prime time tourism.
    But what a difference the Soviets’ leaving has had on this glorious European capital!  Entrepreneurs moved in to bolster the tourist industry, restoring the antique buildings and museums in the Castle area, global hotel chains opened outposts, and restaurants blossomed everywhere.                         Indeed, on my trip this winter I found Budapest now to rank with the most beautiful and sophisticated cities in Europe, not least for its use of public lighting that brightens all that was once dark, from the grand Opera House (right), now being modernized and enlarged,  on the broad Andrássy út
and the majestic Parliament on Kossuth Square to the churches and shops along tiny streets and avenues leading to the romantic Danube River, which has never looked blue-er,  plied by tour boats, its banks lined with promenades and street car lanes.  The city’s great-again architecture reflects the once unquestioned power and wealth of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after the city of Buda was combined with Pest in 1873.
    The Castle area, on the Buda side, (reached by funicular, footpath or, the best way, bus) is compact and far more quaint than Pest, and it is a joy to walk the narrow streets after wandering the vast halls of the Hungarian National Gallery (left), which not too long ago seemed filled with little but huge paintings of Hungarian armies beating back the Turkish invaders.  Today, it has emerged as one of the world’s finest museums, and, with further reconfiguring to come, it will be even more inclusive of art from every century and prove that the Hungarian artists of the 19th and 20th centuries both absorbed and manifested the leading movements of their time.
    Buda’s Old Town, begun in the 13th century, suffered through various wars, but today looks as handsome and kempt as ever in its history, its cobblestone streets lined with cafés, bistros, hotels, a Museum of Military History, a pharmacy museum, even an English bookstore.  The town’s medieval character is best seen on Lords’ Street, where the aristocracy once lived (60 of the old homes have been restored) and in Holy Trinity Square, where the enduring majesty of Hungary’s Catholic religion can be measured in the exquisite interior of Mátyás Church, with every square inch of it painted in beautiful colors and motifs (right), dating to the late 19th century, though the church, devoted to the Virgin Mary, goes back many centuries.
    Back across the Danube, which you cross on the beloved Chain Link Bridge, the new splendor of Pest is revealed in a panoply of buildings in myriad styles, from the splendidly baroque St. Anne’s Church to the magnificent Neo-classic St. Stephen’s Basilica (left), built between 1845 and 1905 (its original dome collapsed in 1868).  The church centers the city and all roads seem to lead to it, its height towering above all else.
    Right in front of the Chain Link Bridge is what is now The Four Seasons Hotel (of which I shall be writing more in an upcoming issue), a very fine example of Secession architecture. It was once called Gresham Palace—built in 1907 by London’s Gresham Life Assurance Company—which a 1999 guidebook describes as having “a crumbling façade.”  Today, that façade (right) has been restored to show all the magnificence Lord Gresham (of  “Gresham’s Law”) intended, from its ornately carved windows and stone sculptures and its grand interior arcades with a glass dome hung with a beehive-like crystal chandelier that lets the soft Hungarian sun pour through.
    Kossuth Square expands away from the river and is dominated by the great Neo-Gothic Parliament building (below), 880 feet long and 315 feet tall, with a gilded dome once topped in the post-war years with a red Communist star, but that is long gone. The building also houses a hall of Gobelin tapestries, and a grand staircase decorated by Hungarian masters like Károly Lotz and György Kiss.

    There are so many neighborhoods and quarters being gentrified throughout Budapest that, once a city where one wandered aimlessly amidst shabby, ill-lighted gray buildings, one now meanders slowly to take in its unique cultural heritage evident even in the back streets as much as on the sweeping boulevards. 
    Indeed, in the past decade Budapest has emerged as finer than it ever was, ready to take its place again among Europe’s most important modern metropolises.  The people move faster now, but slow down to eat and drink better, and it is palpable in their manners and greetings just how proud they are to welcome visitors to a city that once was off limits to much of the world. 

IN PART TWO: Where to Stay and Dine in Budapest


By John Mariani


1662 3rd Avenue (at East 93rd Street)

    New York City has no dearth of good Greek restaurants, from Milos,  Molyvos and Loi in Manhattan to a panoply (from the Greek panoplia) of them in Astoria, and most of them serve a similar menu of traditional favorites, including some of the best seafood anywhere.
    Korali Estiatorio, now opened two years on the Upper East Side, where NYC food media rarely stray, does not only serve superb examples of those Greek classics but does it with an open-armed hospitality within a cocoon-like atmosphere that for me is the epitome of what a comfortable restaurant should be. In other restaurants you sit down; at Korali (Greek for coral), you sink into the ambiance.
    It’s not that the décor is all that original—it draws heavily on the white and Mediterranean blue of restaurants in the Greek isles—but it’s how it’s all put together: The two-level dining room and bar are perfectly lighted to evoke conviviality, with high ceilings and wooden and bamboo rafters, brick walls, stone archways, and rustic white tables and chairs that reflect the light—all an evocation of Mykonos as transmuted by interior designer Yianni Skordas of Skordas Design Studio.
    Owner Gregori Politis is everywhere to be seen in his restaurant, and it is wise to put yourself in his hands, as our party of four did.  Otherwise you may have an impossible time choosing among the myriad salads and mezes on the menu. He sources carefully, with sustainably raised organic meat and seafood from Barn Lane Farms in Connecticut, and his fish is as much as possible wild, not farm-raised.  The wine list is much too short, perhaps a problem of storage, but the selections are good examples of modern Greek enology.
    Good bread and Greek olive oil are placed on the table and with the variety of spreads ($6 each or $14 for four) you get warm pita, though it is a rather flat, listless version. Tzatziki, marvelously thick Greek yogurt, is flecked with cucumber, garlic and dill, and htipiti is whipped spicy feta with a burst of roasted chilies.  Melitzanosalata is a luscious, sweet-savory blend of roasted eggplant, garlic, herbs and extra-virgin olive oil.
    There is a big, generous Greek salad ($12) that can serve two as an appetizer (left), and I advise everyone to share the mezes like grilled octopus with fava beans, pickled onions, cherry tomatoes, capers and saffron-infused lemon oil
($18). Kalamakia are crispy calamari with garlic and rosemary and tomato ($11), and fava Santorini is a delicious yellow split pea purée with onions, capers, parsley and olive oil ($9).  Saganaki comes as baked Greek cheese with a roasted tomato compote ($12).
    That all these and more might compose an entire meal is tempting, but you won’t want to miss Chef Peter Tsaglis’s main courses, especially the perfectly grilled fish like lavráki (sea bass), whose flesh was moist and sweet, barely touched with capers and olive oil (below), as simple and wonderful as Greek food can be ($24).  Next time I’m going back for the prawns  ($29) or the xifias souvlaki swordfish kebabs ($22).
    Korali’s arni youvetsi is a slowly braised lamb shank with sweet tomato, orzo pasta and tangy feta cheese, easily a match for the best Italian osso buco in NYC, and at a very reasonable price
($22).  Pastitsio, usually made with ground meat, is done here as a pasta dish, but I found it lacking in much flavor.
    The desserts are well worth trying, from karidopita ($9), a delectable honey-soaked walnut cake to housemade yogurt with a thick drizzle of thyme honey ($9.50). 
    A semolina-wrapped custard called galaktoboureco with orange lemon zest syrup
($9) was good, though not outstanding.
    I’m told that guests can also pre-order roasted whole goat sourced from upstate New York that is wrapped in foil with salt, pepper, olive oil and white wine and roasted for three-and-a-half hours so that the meat almost falls from the bone.
    It is a cliché to say a restaurant can transport you back to a favorite place in another country, but in every detail Gregori Politis has gotten Korali right, and thereby serves as a marker for the best of Greek cuisine and hospitality in NYC, whatever the borough.      
     I read that the Greek word efforia—euphoria—does not mean an excited state of happiness as much as it does good health.  But if Polits opens another restaurant in the future, he might well name it efforia  and take credit for any connotations it may express.

Korali  is open for dinner nightly and offers a prix fixe lunch Wed.-Fri. and brunch on weekends.




By John A. Curtas

    Twenty years ago, back when dead tree journalism was still thriving, I attended a convocation of food writers in Napa Valley. For a few days, bigwigs from the New York Times, Saveur and Bon Appetit rubbed shoulders with food writers from around the country.
    Among the cookbook scribes, Marcella Hazan was the biggest draw – commanding the main stage for her Italian cooking demonstration. Her husband, Victor, did the same as he lectured passionately about the glories of Italian wine. After his talk (where he was introduced as America's preeminent authority on the subject), I asked him if there were any books or guides to help me gain a better understanding of Italian wine (or any understanding of it for that matter). He responded that he didn’t think so. Apparently, to learn anything about Italian wine in America in 1997, you had to know Victor Hazan.
     How things have changed. Thanks to the tireless promotion of Piero Selvaggio, John Mariani, Burton Anderson, James Suckling  and others (as well as America's food revolution and the internet), learning about Italian wines is much easier than it used to be. But it's still a very dense and difficult subject, even for the most ardent oenophile. When you consider that Italy has twenty different wine growing regions, producing wines from hundreds of different grapes (over 350 authorized varieties at last count), the task is daunting indeed. (By way of comparison, France uses around 50 different grapes for its storied wines.)
     As my Italian wine IQ grew (helped along by multiple visits to Italy), one thing always puzzled me: for a country so rich in wine, no one ever talks about Roman wines.  While Roman food may be renowned, its wines are rarely mentioned in the same breath. Perhaps Roman wines have suffered from an excess of Est!! Est!! Est!! ("The dullest white wine with the strangest name in the world," says Jancis Robinson) and from the oceans of cheap Frascati that fuel the trattorias of the Eternal City. Between that reputation for producing  cheap, uninteresting wine, and America's taste for the killer “B’s”—Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello di Montalcino—the flavorful and affordable wines being made south of Rome have had an uphill climb to gain the audience they deserve. But climb that hill you should, and climb it I did to the town of Cori (right), to taste some well-crafted, intense and fruit-forward juice that may finally put Roman wines on the map.
    Marco Carpineti comes from generations of winemakers, and since 1994 has been making his own wines organically, and bio-dynamically, using no herbicides, chemical fertilizers or synthetic products. His winery is set on a hillside on the road to Cori, just south of Rome, which itself sits more than 1,300 feet above sea level. His vineyards are located on the hills and fields below the mountain, and from these sites he crafts a number of bewitching wines, most of which are made with grapes you've never heard of.
    Bellone  is one such grape. A native vine that hints at the herbaceousness of a good sauvignon blanc, with a nice, round mouthfeel and lemony finish that makes it perfect for seafood and oysters. If Carpineti and other Lazio producers have their way, it is a white wine that might someday challenge the ubiquitous (and often boring) pinot grigio for Italian white wine supremacy.
    Whether it does that or not, Carpineti certainly makes a very firm and fresh sparkler  called Kius, which is every bit the equal of many a prosecco. A step up in depth takes you to their Kius Extra Brut (below),  made exclusively with Nero Buono di Cori grapes—a well-balanced wine with a hint of fragiolini (small strawberries) and brioche on the nose, and a long, medium dry finish.  It starts slightly sweet and floral on the tongue and ends dry, and begs to be drunk with a variety of summer foods, cured meats and mild cheeses.
        The Bellone grape makes another appearance in Carpineti’s Capolemone white, which seeks to harness the soil and scents of this native grape. The light straw appearance is deceptive as the wine is uncommonly round and full in mouth. It finishes with hints of lemon, making it a perfect accompaniment to grilled fish or fresh oysters. Just as compelling is Moro,  a blend of white "Greco" grapes that yield a softer, fruitier wine with hints of ripe fruit, perhaps due to 30% of the grapes being fermented in "refined oak barrels." The Moro struck me as an excellent aperitif. The sparklers and white wines impressed us the most at Carpineti, but it was their Tufaliccio red blend of Montelpuciano and Cesanese grapes that won the award for the hardest to pronounce, easiest to drink wine of the day. This is a soft, mellow, easy to gulp red that would go beautifully with a variety of foods—sort of like a cru Beaujolais, only earthier and without the latter's high-toned fruit.
        Paolo Carpineti couldn't have been a more gracious host, and to cap off our day of tasting, he drove us to the top of the town of Cori, where the Temple of Hercules (left) stands—built 300 years before the founding of Rome. 
If you time your visit right, as Paolo did for us, you will wind your way to the top of this ancient town right at the end of the day, where one of the most fabulous sunsets in Italy awaits you.
Italian wines, by their nature, are not wines for dissection and introspection. They are as indispensable a part to the enjoyment of an Italian meal, as any pasta or protein. Italians view wine as a food, and as something to be enjoyed with food. This was the lesson of Cincinnato (below, left), a cooperative wine maker a little down the hill from Carpineti. Cincinnato is a winery, as well as an agriturismo, which means you can spend the night, sip, sup and stay to your hearts content (as long as you book one of their modern, comfortable rooms in advance).  It is named after the famous Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a 5th Century BC Roman politician who, rather than consolidating his power and lording it over the country, went back to his farm in the Cori countryside—as depicted by the logo.
Bellone grapes  (right) are cultivated in the lava hills around the Cori,  and the varietal has often been thought of as a simple or blending wine. It may not have the structure of more exalted grapes, but in Cincinnato's Castore bottling there is nice acidity to go with its silvery color and tart, faintly lemon peel-like finish. In all, quite a mouthful for less than $15 retail.
    From there, wine writer Charles Scicolone and I worked our way through the entire catalogue. (Wine tasting tip: If you're going to tour Italian wineries, always be sure to bring your very own Italian wine expert with you.) Both of us liked the Castore, but we were more enamored of the Pozzodorico Bellone, perhaps because it is fermented and aged in wood for six months, giving it more body and complexity and length than its stainless steel cousin.
     We then sampled a fruit-forward blend of 50% Bellone, 30% Malvasia del Lazio and 20% Greco—called Illirio Cori Bianco—and a Pantaleo, made with 100% Greco grapes. Our guide at the winery, Giovanna Trisorio, described the Greco grape as an ancient, indigenous variety that produces a soft, yet full-bodied wine. I liked the Illirio's minerality, but found it lighter, tighter and tarter in the mouth than the much fuller Panteleo. That both wines pack so much lip smacking complexity in bottles costing around $10 is something to behold.
     Of the reds we tasted, the Polluce was the clear-cut winner.  Made with 100% Nero Buono grapes, this was a fresh, smooth, easy-to-drink red. It was dark purple in the glass and a touch smoky—more redolent of black fruit than red—and just the sort of vino rosso you'd want with some beef cheek ravioli or spaghetti alla carbonara.
     "All of these wines need food," said Scicolone, and the winery obliged, serving us a fantastic lunch of local salumi, meats, cheeses and breads to accompany our serious sipping, all accompanied by their gorgeous, fresh, peppery olive oil.
    Cincinnato represents more than 130 families, farmers and grape grower in the Cori region. It has brought its wines into the 21st Century with a sleek and stylish label that announces some very approachable wines at incredibly soft prices. Most of its catalogue sells in America in the $10-$20 range, and for that price you're getting some serious wine making.
     The wines are named metaphorically (Castore and Polluce are the twin brothers of Greek mythology as well as characters in a famous Italian opera; Illirio means "hill"), but they make it easy for you by identifying the main grape variety right on the front of the label. These varieties deserve to be drunk more than they are on this side of the pond, and after a few sips of Bellone, you may never go back to mediocre pinot grigio again.




Dumpling Galaxy: It’s much easier to find great food in Flushing than it is to find atmosphere, and though Dumpling Galaxy is technically in a shopping mall, it’s the rare establishment to offer both.  There are plenty of sleek, semi-private-feeling booths to cozy into, and over 100 varieties of excellent dumplings to choose from — and what kind of person is not passionate about dumplings? . . . . Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs: You can get a Nathan’s hot dog pretty much anywhere these days, and the branding lacks charm, but the original location, just steps from the boardwalk, still makes for one of the greatest cheap dates of all time.”--Hannah Goldfield, "The Absolute Best Romantic Restaurants in New York," New York Magazine (1/18/17).


According to The Local, Pope Francis told a young crowd at a university in Rome that speaking on the phone during dinner was going to ruin society. "When we're at the table, when we are speaking to others on our telephones, it's the start of war because there is no dialogue," he said. The pope also told the crowd that young people are too casual with their manners,  should take more care to be quieter, talk less, and listen more to the people around them.


 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from

   The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books) is a  novella, and for anyone who loves dogs, Christmas, romance, inspiration, even the supernatural, I hope you'll find this to be a treasured  favorite. The  story concerns how, after a New England teacher, his wife and their two daughters adopt a stray puppy found in their barn in northern Maine, their lives seem full of promise. But when tragedy strikes, their wonderful dog Lazarus and the spirit of Christmas are the only things that may bring his master back from the edge of despair. 


“What a huge surprise turn this story took! I was completely stunned! I truly enjoyed this book and its message.” – Actress Ali MacGraw

“He had me at Page One. The amount of heart, human insight, soul searching, and deft literary strength that John Mariani pours into this airtight novella is vertigo-inducing. Perhaps ‘wow’ would be the best comment.” – James Dalessandro, author of Bohemian Heart and 1906.

“John Mariani’s Hound in Heaven starts with a well-painted portrayal of an American family, along with the requisite dog. A surprise event flips the action of the novel and captures us for a voyage leading to a hopeful and heart-warming message. A page turning, one sitting read, it’s the perfect antidote for the winter and promotion of holiday celebration.” – Ann Pearlman, author of The Christmas Cookie Club and A Gift for my Sister.

“John Mariani’s concise, achingly beautiful novella pulls a literary rabbit out of a hat – a mash-up of the cosmic and the intimate, the tragic and the heart-warming – a Christmas tale for all ages, and all faiths. Read it to your children, read it to yourself… but read it. Early and often. Highly recommended.” – Jay Bonansinga, New York Times bestselling author of Pinkerton’s War, The Sinking of The Eastland, and The Walking Dead: The Road To Woodbury.

“Amazing things happen when you open your heart to an animal. The Hound in Heaven delivers a powerful story of healing that is forged in the spiritual relationship between a man and his best friend. The book brings a message of hope that can enrich our images of family, love, and loss.” – Dr. Barbara Royal, author of The Royal Treatment.


The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani (Bloomsbury USA, $35)

Modesty forbids me to praise my own new book, but let me proudly say that it is an extensive revision of the 4th edition that appeared more than a decade ago, before locavores, molecular cuisine, modernist cuisine, the Food Network and so much more, now included. Word origins have been completely updated, as have per capita consumption and production stats. Most important, for the first time since publication in the 1980s, the book includes more than 100 biographies of Americans who have changed the way we cook, eat and drink -- from Fannie Farmer and Julia Child to Robert Mondavi and Thomas Keller.

"This book is amazing! It has entries for everything from `abalone' to `zwieback,' plus more than 500 recipes for classic American dishes and drinks."--Devra First, The Boston Globe.

"Much needed in any kitchen library."--Bon Appetit.

Now in Paperback, too--How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan)  has won top prize  from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.  It is a rollicking history of the food culture of Italy and its ravenous embrace in the 21st century by the entire world. From ancient Rome to la dolce vita of post-war Italy, from Italian immigrant cooks to celebrity chefs, from pizzerias to high-class ristoranti, this chronicle of a culinary diaspora is as much about the world's changing tastes, prejudices,  and dietary fads as about our obsessions with culinary fashion and style.--John Mariani

"Eating Italian will never be the same after reading John Mariani's entertaining and savory gastronomical history of the cuisine of Italy and how it won over appetites worldwide. . . . This book is such a tasteful narrative that it will literally make you hungry for Italian food and arouse your appetite for gastronomical history."--Don Oldenburg, USA Today. 

"Italian restaurants--some good, some glitzy--far outnumber their French rivals.  Many of these establishments are zestfully described in How Italian Food Conquered the World, an entertaining and fact-filled chronicle by food-and-wine correspondent John F. Mariani."--Aram Bakshian Jr., Wall Street Journal.

"Mariani admirably dishes out the story of Italy’s remarkable global ascent to virtual culinary hegemony....Like a chef gladly divulging a cherished family recipe, Mariani’s book reveals the secret sauce about how Italy’s cuisine put gusto in gusto!"--David Lincoln Ross,

"Equal parts history, sociology, gastronomy, and just plain fun, How Italian Food Conquered the World tells the captivating and delicious story of the (let's face it) everybody's favorite cuisine with clarity, verve and more than one surprise."--Colman Andrews, editorial director of The Daily

"A fantastic and fascinating read, covering everything from the influence of Venice's spice trade to the impact of Italian immigrants in America and the evolution of alta cucina. This book will serve as a terrific resource to anyone interested in the real story of Italian food."--Mary Ann Esposito, host of PBS-TV's Ciao Italia.

"John Mariani has written the definitive history of how Italians won their way into our hearts, minds, and stomachs.  It's a story of pleasure over pomp and taste over technique."--Danny Meyer, owner of NYC restaurants Union Square Cafe,  The Modern, and Maialino.



FEATURED LINKS: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linked to four excellent travel sites:

Everett Potter's Travel  Report

I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the  web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury  Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and  a frequent contributor to National  Geographic Traveler,  and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their  travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special  places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of  staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star  places as five-star experiences."  THIS WEEK: BELLILOGUE, IRELAND

Eating Las Vegas JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is the co-author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants, as well as the author of the Eating Las Vegas web site: www.eatinglasvegas. He can also be seen every Friday morning as the “resident foodie” for Wake Up With the Wagners on KSNV TV (NBC) Channel 3  in Las Vegas.


nickonwine: An engaging, interactive wine column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four Seasons Magazine; Wine Columnist,;;

MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani, Robert Mariani,  Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Geoff Kalish, Mort Hochstein, and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Dargery. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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